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Newton couple volunteers their way to Flint Hills

Darrel Unruh of Newton has been volunteering for the Symphony in the Flint Hills for the past eight out of nine years. (Photo by Travis N. Gillespie)

In the 54 years Darrel and Wanda Unruh have been married, they never attended a symphony performance before the first Symphony in the Flint Hills concert eight years ago.

The Unruhs are volunteers for the nonprofit organization. Both are retired, he from his career as an industrial engineer and she as a pharmacy tech. They’ve lived in the same house in Newton since 1965 where they raised their son, who works as a soil scientist in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Newton couple learned about Symphony in the Flint Hills as the organization was gearing up for its first concert nine years ago. As Wanda tells it, they were on a bus tour of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, located in the Flint Hills, less than 25 miles west of Emporia.

The Unruhs always have felt a connection to the native Kansas landscape, so when a park ranger mentioned the Kansas City Symphony was planning a concert on the open prairie, the couple was intrigued.

“I just love the Flint Hills,” Wanda said.  “People need to understand how important this land is. There’s something magical about it.”

Unfortunately, the Unruhs didn’t get to see that first concert — it sold out on the first day. It’s sold out every year, actually, and they were too late again the second year, but this time they had a plan: They signed up as volunteers.

“They said we could collect trash,” Wanda explained. “I was like, ‘Oh dear — I don’t know if I want to do that!’ But we did, and it was so much fun. We’ve been volunteers every year since.”

This year, Darrel said they especially enjoyed the educational presentations — and, of course, the concert itself, Wanda added.

“And we got in free,” Darrel said.

Wanda said they were impressed with the operation of the Gottsch-owned ranch. They loved learning about the native Kaw and Osage people who were the first custodians of the land, and they were proud to be part of an organization dedicated to preserving the Flint Hills.

Darrel and Wanda Unruh are a balanced couple, trading wit, patience and wisdom with each other and those around them. As for their job volunteering at Symphony in the Flint Hills, Darrel said they’ve got a system worked out.

“She does the driving,” he said. “I pick up the trash.”

— Travis Gillespie